How different are we, really?

By Melissa Poulin

When I first read Kristin Lavransdatter, a book that holds womanhood to the flame, I was two years married and two years away from becoming a mother. I read it during a season when I was head over heels in love with Scandinavian literature. I had discovered Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s poetry and set about reading everything of his I could find. I went to a reading (at the now-shuttered Tavern Books) honoring his work, including a chapbook of his Prison series of haiku, translated into English by the Swedish poet Malena Morling. From there I read everything I could find of Morling’s work. My favorite poem of hers, from the book Astoria, is called “Happiness:”

How far away is your happiness?
How many inches?
How many yards?
How many bus rides to work
and back?
How many doorways
and stairwells?
How many hours
awake in the dark
belly of the night
which contains
all the world’s bedrooms,
all dollhouse-sized?
How far away is your happiness?
How many words?
How many thoughts?
How much pavement?
How much thread
in the enormous sewing machine
of the present moment?

Isn’t that an astonishing thing to consider, this question of measuring our distance from happiness? It takes as a given that happiness is far away, a destination toward which life hurtles us, like a late train. Then it pelts more questions at this one larger question, an indignant child hurling pebbles at something immutable, like life. In part, and strangely, for a poem on happiness, this is a poem of anger, though it is hard to say what the object of its anger is. Maybe it is time, or maybe it is industrialized time. To me the poem is asking us to wake up and discover the game we are in, to realize it’s possible to believe ourselves on the path toward happiness, and therefore never reach it.

This seems like a good vantage point from which to consider Kristin, a trilogy now nearly a century old, that brings the 1920s feminist quest for freedom to bear on medieval Norway and Catholicism. How far away is your happiness, Kristin? Walking the path with her, in 2013 and now in 2022, I find myself asking what I need, what women need, to reach happiness. How does our understanding of happiness change when we step through the “doorways and stairwells” of marriage and motherhood? Is happiness to be found giving into or resisting temptation, in the experience of being tempted, or in doing away entirely with the concept? Is there happiness in breaking with tradition, in defying cultural conceptions of sin and guilt? In redemption, or in exile? Is happiness real? Is happiness beside the point?

In joining Project Redux this year, I’m interested in investigating these questions as I think back on the woman I was when I first read it in 2013– between two thresholds, newly married but unencumbered by children– and the woman I am today, with three children under six who I’m ushering toward independence in the shadow of climate change, a virus becoming endemic, and mushrooming violence against women. Much is different today than it was in Kristin’s time, and yet threads of commonality endure.


Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.

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